How do I maintain a presence for an absent student?

  • A student’s education can be negatively affected by disconnection from their school, in the short and long term. Teachers can play a really important role in helping a young person maintain a social presence at school when they’re absent due to a health condition.

    What does the research say?

    Research gives us some insight into young people’s perspectives on living with illness and their connection to school. It shows that these young people can feel detached from their school community when their relationships with their friends and peers keep changing because they’re away a lot. When you’ve got a student who is absent for long periods, you can help them keep up important social bonds by maintaining a social presence.

    Strategies for schools

    Encourage regular contact between the absent student and their peers through email, text messages, phone calls, Skype, or social media. Communicating with an absent student has more information about keeping in touch.

    Include the absent student in class events such as footy tipping competitions or class photo walls.

    Keep the seat warm with a teddy, toy or something that’s a physical reminder of the young person. It’s a way of ‘holding’ their place in the class until they can return in person.

    Create a communication bag to hang on the back of an absent student’s chair. Have the class make regular contributions to it.

    Use roll call to mention the absent student. Take a moment to reflect on their progress or share news.

    Make it regular

    Regular Student Support Group meetings are another way to promote communication between an absent student and the school. Encourage parents to share concerns and ideas about improving the connection to school.

    Use technology

    Find inspiration in some of the projects and research underway into technology and communication with young people absent from school due to hospitalisation.

    The Ambient Orb Project is one of our research projects aiming to improve children's sense of connection to their peers and school community.

    Providing Education by Bringing Learning Environments to Students (PEBBLES) is an innovative system that combines video conferencing technologies with simple robotics.

    Be realistic

    Sometimes you have to take a step back. There will be times when a young person just won’t feel up to contacting peers or teachers because they’re tired, distracted or experiencing other symptoms associated with their illness. Even parents have said they sometimes feel unsure about the best way to keep their child and school connected.

    Keep at it

    When the student hasn’t been in the classroom for a long time, it can take a bit of effort to keep them in mind. You may find it difficult to maintain that connection when they’ve been in hospital for an extended period.

    But the research tells us that your efforts will be noticed. Young people really appreciate teacher efforts to maintain a relationship between themselves and the school. They might not make a fuss about it, but it makes a difference to them when they’re actively included.

    More information

    Keeping Connected: Identity, social connection and education for young people living with chronic illness (2010) is the final report of the Keeping Connected project.  It highlights the clear and pressing need for a system of advocacy on the part of young people and families within both the health and education systems – and for communication between schools and hospitals.

    Keeping Connected: Young people's stories of living and learning with an ongoing health condition (2009) is research report with a central focus on the 31 young people who participated in the longitudinal case study component of the Keeping Connected project. It has lots of stories and photos, so it’s a large pdf file to download.